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'Hillbilly Elegy' Author On The White Working Class And America's Greatness

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'Hillbilly Elegy' Author On The White Working Class And America's Greatness

'Hillbilly Elegy' Author On The White Working Class And America's Greatness

'Hillbilly Elegy' Author On The White Working Class And America's Greatness

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/488637593/488637594" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Steve Inskeep talks with J.D. Vance, whose new book "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" looks at why the white working class is broken and how that helps explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's take a trip to Appalachia. The presidential candidates have been doing that. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have spent time in states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania - both of them swing states which could decide this election and both states that include parts of the Appalachian Mountains. So does Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine's Virginia, which is another swing state. All are home to parts of a deeply troubled, white working class who've taken center stage in this election.

J.D. Vance, the author of a new book, says those are also states which have been reduced to grim statistics. His book is called "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis."

J D VANCE: So I'm from Middletown, Ohio, which is a small steel town in southwestern Ohio. And I also write a lot about Jackson, Ky., which is in eastern Kentucky coal country, in the book just because I spent a lot of time there as a kid. And that's where my grandparents, who raised me, are from.

INSKEEP: What's it like? What's the landscape like? What are the people like? Where are they from?

VANCE: So this area of the country - and I'm not not talking about just Jackson. I'm talking also about southwestern Ohio. In some ways, it's been decimated by the decline of the industrial economy. So people used to rely on automotive jobs, steel mill jobs, coal jobs. And those things, for the most part, simply don't exist. The factories have either shed those jobs or closed down altogether.

And so what you have is a social crisis of pretty significant proportions that's, I think, moved in in the wake of this industrial decline. So you see rising rates of opioid addiction. In the Ohio county where I grew up, actually, last year, deaths from drug overdoses outnumbered deaths from natural causes, which is just kind of extraordinary. You have rising rates of divorce, of family chaos, domestic violence.

And really interestingly, you have a decline in traditional religious institutions. So people think of this area as the Bible Belt. But folks are actually going to church a lot less than they used to. So taken all together, I think you have an area that's very, very hopeless and really is frustrated with what's been going on in their communities and across the country.

INSKEEP: How is your family representative of that domestic chaos?

VANCE: My mom struggled with addiction in her life. She's, you know, had a number of different marriages and - none of which were very successful. And I think when I first started writing the book, frankly, I was angry at my mom. I think I didn't understand or appreciate why she didn't make better choices.

But as I realized how truly endemic these problems were, I think I started to realize that many of the problems that I saw in my family were much broader. They had much broader application across the community. And that really, I think, opened up my eyes and gave me quite a bit of sympathy and understanding towards my own family.

INSKEEP: You then connect this to modern day politics. You are the author of a Washington Post op-ed which has one of the saddest headlines I've ever seen, "How The White Working Class Lost Its Patriotism." What do you mean by that?

VANCE: I interviewed my grandma for a school project. I asked her all the questions about her life, about her marriage, about her children. And I'm not kidding to say that she spent 15 minutes of an hour conversation on those things. And she spent 45 minutes talking about World War II, the greatest generation, how her family helped in various ways from service to helping out in the factories.

And it was this thing - that you really believed that we lived in the greatest and best country on Earth. But that really has started to fall apart. And when you think about Donald Trump, there are many things to say, of course, about Trump. But his slogan, make America great again - and the obvious implicit acknowledgement in that statement is that America isn't great right now.

And for a people who send their kids to the military at disproportionate rates, who sing and adore patriotic anthems, this is a really significant part of the past 20 or 30 years of their lives - is that they've lost the faith that I had, which is that their country was a great place that would give them opportunities so long as they worked hard.

INSKEEP: You know, it's been hard to have any political interview without talking about Trump for the past year or so. But we've now talked about him. So let me just ask you because you've had a lifetime of experience. You've been writing this book for quite some time. Are there other trends, political or otherwise, that you've noticed in Appalachia that you would detach from Donald Trump? - that you think, perhaps, we're missing even now?

VANCE: A really important trend that I think a lot of liberal elites miss is a recognition of the role of religion in these communities. You may recall that President Obama in 2007 or 2008 said that in the wake of the decline of the industrial economy, these people are clinging to their guns and their religion.

And whatever might be said about guns, the fact is that people in these communities are actually going to church less and less. Church attendance rates among white Americans without a college education have dropped pretty significantly. People with college degrees are more likely to go to church than people without college degrees among the white working class.

And importantly, when you go to church, you're fundamentally part of a community. And for people, I think, who don't have a lot of community left, we should keep in mind how important, I think, the church can be and indeed how important the church is for many folks.

INSKEEP: Do you think that the elites of either party actually do not care very much about the people you grew up around?

VANCE: I don't think that at all, actually. I think that the elites of both parties do care about the people I grew up around. I also think that they're very disconnected. And so they don't appreciate one, the scale of the problem. Two, they don't appreciate how people really think or feel.

One of the most interesting social trends of the past 20 years is the rise of residential segregation. So rich are living with rich and poor are living with poor. So I don't think that it's a matter of them not caring. I think that it's a matter of them not really understanding and not spending enough time with the people who, at the end of the day, are facing the brunt of these challenges.

INSKEEP: J.D. Vance, thanks very much.

VANCE: Yeah, thank you very much.

INSKEEP: J.D. Vance grew up in a troubled family, as he said, went on to the Marines and Yale and has received a lot of attention for this book called "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis."

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